I hitched a ride with the Doctor to the UK of 1985 to find this ad in the pages of Zzap!64.
The controversial cover art for the third Ultima brought plenty of attention to the game, but also a few headaches for Richard “Lord British” Garriott. According to Shay Addams’ “The Official Book of Ultima” from 1990, he writes that in addition to the droves of fan mail Garriott received for his games, he also heard from “fundamental religious extremists” accusing him of “corrupting the youth of America” with one urging him to “burn” the game. Naming the main villain after one of the books in the Bible probably didn’t help, either, even though it sounded cool.
Most players, though, probably thought the box art was awesome and that the bad guy on the cover looked like it could be a tough boss to beat. Box art for the Ultima series had become considerably better and game packaging wasn’t an afterthought — it and what was inside continued to double as complementary passports to the developers’ worlds of wonder.
In the first Ultima, the evil wizard, Mondain, was defeated. Next, his apprentice, Minax, met her end after a pursuit through time. And now, twenty years later, a new evil has returned. It seems that Mondain and Minax had a child that no one knew about, one that was far more powerful than its parents had ever been in both wickedness and power. That child was Exodus, and it was ready to finish the work its parents began.
Ultima III, released in 1983 for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and the Atari 8-bit PC, set up elements of what would become Sosaria and the Ultima series going forward. The sci-fi elements were severely curtailed, the time gates of the last game were now moon gates allowing transport to locales based on phases of the moons (which both had their own names), and the precursors to the Shrines of Virtue would also establish themselves here.
As a first for the series, it finally included parties, catching up with what titles such as Sir-Tech’s Wizardry which Garriott also recalls in Addams’ book. The first two Ultima games were solo ventures — the player as the “Stranger” would go forth and smite evil all by themselves. Now, the “Siege Perilous” has been “widened” to allow a party of four to enter the lands of Sosaria. Or, you could start off solo and recruit whoever you wanted from the land itself if you so chose, though this didn’t actually seem to work.
The game used the same, overhead tile-based movement that had become a standard for the series and which a number of other CRPGs would also be compared with. Dungeons were still in first-person, pseudo-3D, but the wireframe walls and caves were replaced with colored-in walls (even if they could be black & white). Combat, however, went from being a simple affair of attacking enemies in the tile-based overworld or mashing attacks in dungeons to a turn-based, tactical model in which the player would be able to move each party member about a top-down, tiled field against their enemies. They could only attack vertically or horizontally, though. Monsters could attack in all eight directions which was somewhat strange.
Experience also didn’t go to the whole party — only to those characters that actually dealt the killing blows. While it wasn’t a widely used character development mechanic in the genre, it did find further parallels not only in a few other CRPGs but also within console-based tactical RPGs such as Sega’s Shining Force series and many others years later. Players had to find a balance with their characters, juggling party members on the field so that no one was left too far behind.
Ultima III also used a dynamic score that changed based on your location, whether it was exploring the overworld, dungeons, or if you were in combat. New classes, such as Druids and Paladins, were added in and the manual was illustrated with plenty of art — something that would also become a tradition with the series. Spells were given Latin-like names for the first time and two additional books were included with the game describing them. A cloth map was also included with the game showing the land of Sosaria. You could also tame horses!
There was also an island that wasn’t on the map provided with the game — a hidden place that players had to find on their own — and there were special, stat enhancing shrines that would go on to become the Shrines of Virtue in later games. In many ways, Ultima III created the foundations for what the series would continue to expand upon going forward and act as an inspiration to many others.
It would also mark the first “official” release by Origin Systems as a company for reasons that still resonate with indies today. Garriott notes in Addams’ book that the decision to found Origin Systems stemmed from dealing with big publishers like California Pacific and Sierra On-Line. When IBM PC compatibles began growing in popularity, Garriott’s deal with Sierra didn’t include provisions for royalties on the new platform simply because it wasn’t around at the time it was inked.
Sierra, however, owned all of the publishing rights for Ultima II — basically, they now could set the terms any way that they wanted and essentially gave Garriott the equivalent of a “take it or leave it” deal that would benefit them as well. Although Sierra and Garriott both benefited from their relationship (Sierra had acquiesced to the packaging ideas, such as the included map, for Ultima II), Garriott felt it was time to go indie. And with his own company, Garriott had more control over the royalties that he and other authors would be able to make.
Ultima III also included a number of easter eggs just like the previous games did from names inscribed on dungeon walls to characters inspired by real-life people that Richard Garriott knew and worked with. Lord British, his personal alter ego in the game, was back. It would also be the last game in which players could actually kill him thanks to a boat in his moat and a barrage of cannon fire.
The game went on to sell over 120,000 copies and was awarded a Gold Plaque by the Software Publishers Association. Back then, selling 100k of any software was a huge deal and the SPA recognized that feat with a special award. For the Ultima series, it would become as second nature as the maps that would be included with every game afterward. Ultima was huge by this point and would continue to be a staple of Origin Systems’ growing reputation as a heavyweight developer.
Ports would later follow for DOS, the Mac, the PC-88 and PC-98, and even the NES. The NES version sported plenty of color and music, much like the PC-88 and PC-98 versions, and even kept the tactical top-down combat of the original game while adding in an intro cutscene and redone artwork. The box and label art, on the other hand, were Saturday-morning fare compared to the original with Exodus leering back at the player. Today, you can snag it and Ultimas 1 + 2 together at Good Old Games. There’s even a remake for the Macintosh in the wild over at Lairware.
This ended the “Age of Darkness” trilogy for the series and paved the way for the series to head in new and exciting directions going forward. Richard Garriott and his crew at Origin weren’t finished yet and as they began cracking down on how to make Ultima IV even bigger and better, they would surprise the CRPG world again with an unexpected twist to ye olde RPG formula as games saw it.